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Nick Wakeman

Obama's former national security advisor offers lesson on risk, Snowden and the hunt for Bin Laden

One of the things I love about my job is getting to meet fascinating people, and this morning when I moderated Tom Donilon’s keynote at FOSE is a great example.

Donilon is the former National Security Advisor, who served during the first term of the Obama administration. He was in the White House with the president and others the night Seal Team 6 went into Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden.

He also gave the president a daily national security briefing that described the state of the world and covered a variety of topics and included policies discussions. There was a lot of emphasis on identifying issues and discussing, "Ok, what can we do about that?"

Donilon and I had maybe a 20-minute phone call a week or so ago to discuss the Q&A format. The questions on my list ranged from describing the security briefing process to a review of current hot spots around the world to the impact of Edward Snowden.

I’m going to try to post the video of the keynote, but for now, I wanted to share three takeaways that really stood out to me:

  • The importance of process
  • Rebuilding trust post-Snowden
  • Risk mitigation

As Donilon recounted the hunt and capture of Bin Laden, he described how the president’s closest advisors were divided. The evidence pointing to Bin Laden’s location was circumstantial. There was no physical evidence.

Some fully supported the action, while others were much more cautious. They didn’t want a repeat of the failed attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran in 1980.

After hearing all the pros and cons, the president left the room to consider what to do. He called Donilon the next morning and said the mission was a go.

Despite a divided group of advisors, once the decision was made, they all pulled together and supported it.

Donilon attributed this unity to having a strong process in place that gave people a chance to voice their position, and it was then discussed and analyzed. Even if the ultimate decision goes against their recommendation, people will support it because they were part of the process and their input was heard and considered.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for any company, even if they will never face the life and death decisions that a president must make.

On Edward Snowden, it was no surprise that Donilon has strong feelings about what he did. The impact has been devastating. It has damaged national security operations, and beyond that, the trust and faith allies have in the United States. It has also hurt U.S. technology companies that do business around the world. Again, the issue is trust.

But Donilon pointed out that as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Snowden leaks and the massive amounts of classified information that were released, it’s important to remember what hasn’t happened.

There has been no evidence of abuse of powers; no U.S. citizen has had their civil rights or privacy violated, Donilon said. While the surveillance operations were large, they were still targeted and well-controlled. There was oversight. There were checks in place.

Those facts will play a role in rebuilding the trust of allies and partners. “This was not a rogue operation,” he said.

In response to an audience question about risk, Donilon used the example of the pivot to Asia and how it is important to also consider opportunities as well as risks.

The United States faces many risks around the world, from Russia to the Middle East to Africa. There is also our complex relationship with China.

But there are tremendous opportunities in Asia. The U.S. is currently negotiating a trade agreement that will touch 40 percent of global GDP, he said. The pivot includes economic, diplomatic, security and military initiatives.

“You can’t be paralyzed by risk,” he said.

That’s another great lesson, I thought, that applies to companies as well as nations. You need to consider the opportunity when calculating your risk profile.

As I said, I’m going to try to get the video posted, if not on the Washington Technology website, then on the FOSE.com site. There are more lessons from Donilon’s talk that we can mine.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on May 13, 2014 at 12:24 PM


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